He Disrespected Me

I’ve heard that divorces can be contagious. I’m on extra good behavior these days because I love my wife and well I’m at an age where I’m seeing them flare up in the vicinity. Of note, is that in many cases the wife is financially successful if not the breadwinner. In the stories I’m hearing, there’s a quiet hand-wringing of the husband’s role or identity if not the provider. And this is usually bubbling up from within the husbands themselves. I don’t think that would surprise anyone.

Whenever your own circumstances put you out of sync with broad culture you are quickly reminded that the assault on lifestyle plurality is everywhere and relentless despite the lip service we pay to individuality.

[Personal aside: My wife works full-time and I haven’t in 2 years. We also know many families where dad stays home or is mostly underemployed. It’s a weird barbell because I’ve seen these situations be amazing or distressing. It’s so individual and depends on how the couple’s strengths and insecurities combine into a new whole. What seems consistent when a couple varies in their degrees or types of ambition — “types” is a distinction for another time — the key is communication. This can be especially true if both people work but one is doing work that demands no work-life balance. My wife says you can have it all just not at once. I agree. Acknowledging that your life has seasons is about managing expectations around stretches of required absenteeism. The area under the curve is allowed to be lumpy — you just need to talk about it.]

Relatedly, Yinh was telling me about Shonda Rhimes’ recent appearance on Dax Sheppard’s podcast. Shonda, one of the most successful TV writers of all time, just secured a 9-figure Netflix deal. And she complained that “she can’t get a date”. She openly wonders to Dax, “Am I a troll?” Dax is sympathetic and honest. He talked about feeling insecure and being harder to be around in years when his wife, actress Kristen Bell, made more money than him. Yinh regularly listens to Dax and finds that surprising given his generally modern views. He doesn’t seem like the type to be threatened by his famous wife’s success. But the programming runs deep.

Culture wars like to dramatize gender discourse because it’s a convenient wedge. It’s 2023, it’s safe to assume that stirring the pot for profit is no longer a Jerry Springer sideshow but the point of computers. But as parents of 2 boys, one who will take his first sex ed course this year, the subject of being male in our society is significant to us.

Reading about it feels especially fraught given how axed or left and right-coded anything referencing gender can be. In Am I The Only Sexist? I wrote about catching my own biases. And I should have no excuse. I grew up in a strongly matriarchal family — my mother was the breadwinner and divorced my dad despite the scarlet letter that gets you in Egyptian culture. My sister and wife are also both incredible models of strength so when I hear bros flex “don’t be a pussy” I have the Trevor Noah response:

Still, I’m left trying to understand the landscape my boys face. Yinh has been sharing a bit of Scott Galloway’s conversations on boys in society. Some of it resonates but I’m a bit too biased against Galloway as some kind of entertaining character rather than someone I should listen to outside his domain (he’s a marketing professor, rich businessman, and media personality).

Which brings me to a piece that did slither through my skepticism:

A lecture Rob Henderson (psychology PhD and Air Force veteran…Happy early Veteran’s Day Rob), gave at the University of Richmond.

Understanding Young Male Syndrome (25 min read)

It’s a powerful psychology lesson. While it focuses on boys, the dynamics at hand matter to everyone.

Excerpts (emphasis mine):

On the meaning of “being a man”

I delve into the theoretical and empirical work underlying the “young male syndrome,”

At age 13, this was the first time anyone had ever described me as a “man,” and I implicitly grasped that it had something to do with responsibility and contribution…

There are many ways of understanding what being man is about, and there are many valid ways to be a man. However, regardless of how it is expressed, it usually has something to do with strength and toughness and productivity….Across cultures, there seems to be an implicit understanding of what being a man is…

Shakespeare was clearly a keen observer of human nature in general and of men’s anxieties about their masculinity in particular. Such anxieties regarding the belief that manhood is something that must be achieved through action appear to be ubiquitous around the world…masculinity is widely considered to be an artificially induced status, achievable only through testing and careful instruction.

The story of the Mehinaku, a nonviolent tribe

A fear of economic inadequacy haunts these men. They experience intense anxiety about appearing slothful or lethargic. When a man returns from a dangerous fishing expedition, he is expected to appear immediately in the village plaza, where people gather expectantly. He then ostentatiously displays his catch before distributing it unsparingly. The anthropologist David Gilmore, describing the norms within this community, notes that, “The hallmark of a real man is that he is selfless…he always shares his food.” In contrast, men who are stingy are seen as “parasitic” and “despised as freeloaders.”

[Kris: I had to laugh because I feel that well-paid parasite is basically the American dream. This is the Georgist in me talking.]

Young Male Syndrome

The concept of the young male syndrome was developed by the psychologists Margo Wilson and Martin Daly. And it refers to a pattern of risk-taking behavior that is more pronounced in males in their late teens and early twenties relative to other demographic groups. The research that informs this framework suggests that this increased risk-taking is the result of both social and biological factors, including socio-cultural pressures and hormonal changes. For instance, testosterone levels for males increase by 800%, on average, at age 14. The young male syndrome gives rise to competitiveness and a willingness to take physical and reputational gambles, especially when romantic partnerships, status, and territory are at stake.

In psychological research, the young male syndrome has been linked with higher rates of aggressive behavior, substance abuse, reckless driving, and other potentially dangerous activities. Of course, this is a generalized pattern, and not all young males exhibit this behavior. Nevertheless, the sex differences are striking.

A baby boy born in the U.S. has an astonishing risk profile. Men are 3 times more likely to die before age 25, 3 times more likely to become addicted to drugs or alcohol, and an incredible 19 times more likely to end up in jail.

A man is more than twice as likely as a woman to have a car accident and 3 times more likely to be involved in 2 car accidents. Even when not driving, men are more careless; twice as many men compared with women are killed simply crossing the street. Maleness is by far the biggest risk factor for violence. Men kill men massively more often than women kill women—on average, 26 times more often.

These patterns extend beyond the U.S.

Nature + Nurture

To be sure, there are socio-cultural influences involved here. But environmental factors do not operate on blank slates. To understand young men and young women, you have to take into account not only the cultural context but also evolved sex differences.

Males are more aggressive despite culture, not because of it.

Research suggests that intrasexual competition has given rise to male traits such as broad shoulders, large muscles, deep voices, and facial hair. Men evolved these traits not so much because women find them sexy, but more so because other men find them intimidating. As the psychologist Steve Stewart-Williams has written, secondary sex characteristics appear to be more like deers’ antlers than peacocks’ tails. The peacocks’ tail evolved to attract female peahens. But male deer evolved antlers not to impress female deer, but to compete with other males. That same logic seems to apply to the characteristics of human males.

Roots of young male syndrome: status competition

Status is a stronger generator of envy than material affluence, again indicating just how important status is to people.

Recent scholarship has found that status is far from shallow or unsophisticated. Indeed, it is complex and worthy of careful attention. Status is something that lives in the minds of other people. This explains why researchers have found that when 2 men have an argument on the street, the presence of a third person—a witness—doubles the likelihood that the encounter will escalate from a verbal altercation to one that involves violence. The New York University professor of psychiatry James F. Gilligan has spent 3 decades studying the causes of violence. He has found that, quote “time after time, men give the same answer as to why they assault or kill: ‘because he disrespected me.’”

The major trigger of young male homicides around the world are what social scientists refer to as “trivial altercations.” When they are put down by other men in public, nearly all young men will experience a flash of rage. Most manage to inhibit it. But some act to extinguish the source of their humiliation. The psychologist Douglas T. Kenrick has written that “For young guys, being respectful toward other young men is probably even more important than a healthy diet” to ensure longevity.

Status decomposed

Psychologists have found that social status can be broken down into 2 different types: Dominance and prestige.

Dominance is evolutionarily older and more commonly observed among animals. Dominance in humans is associated with narcissism, aggression, and hostility.

Under the dominance framework, status is attained by instilling fear in others through coercion, intimidation, and displays of brute force. Humans and other animals confer status to dominant individuals because of what the individuals can do to them. Inflict costs, pain, humiliation, injuries, disfigurement, violence, reputation destruction, and so on. As an example, Joseph Stalin obtained status through dominance.

While dominance can confer benefits, it is often associated with instability and tension. In her illuminating book on pride, the psychologist Jessica Tracy has written that “Dominant people pay for their less kindly road to status by incurring the dislike, and even hatred, of their fellow group members, and for many of us this price is simply too high; we’d rather be low on the totem pole than be perceived as arrogant and domineering.”

Then there’s the second type of status, which is prestige. It is evolutionarily more recent and pervasive across human societies.

Prestige is associated with stable self-esteem, social acceptance, and being well-liked. Prestige is freely conferred to individuals based on their knowledge, skills, or success.

We confer status to prestigious individuals because of what these individuals can do for us. Provide us with benefits, teach us useful things, entertain us, grant access to resources, bolster our own status by being associated with them, and so on.

Compared to dominance, prestige offers rewards that are equally compelling or even more so. Prestige signifies a different, and more positive-sum form of social currency. In both non-industrialized and developed countries alike, prestige serves as an effective mode of acquiring status through skill, contribution, or specialized knowledge rather than coercion or force.

The core reason why our human ancestors cared about status, and passed this desire onto us, is because it was directly tied to the ability to obtain critical resources, secure social allies, attract romantic partners, and ultimately, the likelihood of producing offspring.

An important question [read the lecture for more on it]

This discussion about status raises another important question. If men, to varying degrees, intrinsically desire status and its accompanying benefits, why are so many young men now disengaging from education and employment, 2 historically reliable paths to obtaining respect and admiration?

Why understanding how status relates to young male syndrome matters

Young males are inevitably going to try to obtain status, whether in the real world or in a digital one. But anthropological and psychological evidence indicates that people whom young males wish to impress—such as peers, high-status individuals, respected authority figures, and young women—have a lot of influence as to which activities confer status.

If we don’t want to see young men fall prey to the worst expressions of the young male syndrome, we must be intentional in guiding the avenues through which they seek status.

If parents, caregivers, educators, peers, cultural trailblazers, potential romantic partners and other influential members of society overlook the important roles they play, then males will lack the guidance they need to opt into productive paths to prestige and will either take the path of dominance or drop out of society by playing virtual status games that have no real world benefit or contribution.

Young males desire guidance and are deeply responsive to it. They yearn to know how to earn the cherished rewards of respect and admiration. The energy and ambition of young men can be channeled into positive directions.

But if boys aren’t exposed to positive examples of masculinity in their personal lives, they will look for it elsewhere.

Today, in the absence of such guidance, many young boys are being raised by viral TikTok influencers peddling diluted and ungrounded conceptions of masculinity.

High-status individuals have a societal responsibility to guide young men toward constructive avenues for status acquisition.

By doing so, they not only help to mitigate the risks associated with the Young Male Syndrome but also contribute to the cultivation of a more balanced and harmonious society.

Overall I think this lecture is not only provocative but in the right direction. I admit to some reservations about a framing that basically says “if we don’t redirect this energy constructively we will pay for it” because it can be interpreted as “we are hostages to male aggression”. Such a framing can trigger a knee-jerk “I don’t pay ransom to terrorists” or a refusal to acknowledge the legitimacy of the posture regardless of its truth-value.

But the prescription is spot on. The last time I quoted Rob was in my post My Kids’ Trust Fund Says ‘Get Back To Work’ where I excerpted from Happiness Lottery:

I will never tire of highlighting this simple and profound finding: Sociometric status (respect and admiration from peers) is more important for well-being than socioeconomic status. In his powerful book Status Anxiety, Alain de Botton writes: “Provided that it is not accompanied by humiliation, discomfort can be endured for long periods without complaint. For proof of this, we have only to look to the example of the many soldiers and explorers who have, over the centuries, willingly tolerated privations far exceeding those suffered by the poorest members of their societies, so long as they were sustained throughout their hardships by an awareness of esteem in which they were held by others.

In that post, I echoed Rob:

“Here’s a quaint thought. Role models matter.”

Our environments and what we allow in our heads have a tyrannical influence on us. In the reader survey I gave earlier this year I asked you about your heroes. It didn’t go great but that’s my fault. I explained:

The word “hero” conjures worship, cults, Aquaman. There were only 83 real responses because “I’m an adult — I don’t have heros”. Fair enough. Yinh had the same reaction and I projected my own connotation of that word on everyone else.

We have all heard the expression “don’t meet your heros”…those on a pedestal can only fall down. But I’m not talking about a person I want to wholesale exchange my life with or even be handed their superpower.

A hero is someone who embodies a personal aspiration. It’s someone who I keep in mind as a model for behavior. A teacher with a loving but firm demeanor. A parent that stays calm when the children turn the living room into a winter wonderland out of tiny cut-up styrofoam (this happened in December. I wish I kept a picture but I was too busy overreacting with the giant a-hole daddy voice).

Visualizing heroes is how I hack our preloaded “mimic others” bloatware for good use. Where did your own aspirations come from? You’re not Buffalo Bill trying to wear their skin. You’re trying to channel inspiration. “How might X approach this? How would X react to this situation?” You can have a stable of heroes for different situations. They can be celebrities, people you know, or even fictional.

Ultimately, I blame myself for the poor wording. I could have used “role model” or just “someone you admire”. Semantics aside, I hope the visualization hack, should you try it, is useful.

Rob senses what I sense. A deficit of constructive inspiration.

I wonder, do women feel the same way?

(I don’t expect an answer. Another thing I learned from the survey is how male-heavy this readership is.)

Stay groovy ☮️

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